30 May 2015

'Orfeo', Then and Now

I'm pleased to say that I was a finalist in this year's BBC Radio 3 and NCEM Young Composers Award, for which I had the extraordinary privilege of having a short work performed by the Dunedin Consort (one of the best period ensembles in the UK; their recording of the Mozart Requiem is the best I've ever heard).

The composition task was to set a text for the ensemble that had previously been used by Monteverdi and I opted for an English translation of a scene from his 1607 L'Orfeo, in which Proserpine pleads with Pluto to let Eurydice leave the underworld. This is a description of the piece that I gave for the programme:
This scene from Act IV of Orfeo was tempting to set because its events are so central: Proserpine pleads with Pluto to let Orfeo rescue his love and Pluto sets the terms on which we know Orfeo will fail. As such, I wanted to write the music so that it could be played in isolation while also suggesting that we find ourselves in the midst of a bigger story. However, I was particularly drawn by the opportunity to see the plight of Eurydice reflected in Proserpine's circumstances, who otherwise has quite a marginal role.

Before the events of this tale, Proserpine becomes Pluto's wife only after he forcibly abducts her (and although Eurydice canonically enters the underworld after being bitten by a snake, in the Middle English Sir Orfeo, she, too, is abducted), yet Proserpine speaks to Pluto with respect and admiration. She is rather like the Eurydice of Rainer Maria Rilke's striking retelling, where she is so "filled with her vast death" that she has forgotten her earlier life and when Hermes sorrowfully tells her that Orfeo has looked back, all she can say is, "who?" Like Rilke's Eurydice, the familiar Proserpine has forgotten her original self and seems satisfied with a living death.

In this setting, however, I strove to invert that image: here, both women yearn for life back in the world above, and while Proserpine's subjection by the dominating Pluto means that she could never admit to him that she would rather not have been stolen after all, the music hints at a subtextual nostalgia and longing. When she pleads with Pluto to allow Eurydice to return to the "joys of waking days", the implication is that she would return to those joys herself if only there was someone to rescue her.